Old School Stuff That Bugged Me Back in the Day

DM: "Black Dougal, you find out that you missed a tiny discolored needle in the latch. Roll a saving throw vs. Poison, please!" 
Dougal (rolling): "Missed it!" 
DM: "Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead." 
Fredrik: "I'm grabbing his pack to carry treasure in." 
Rebecca: "I'm giving Black Dougal the last rites of my church."
- D&D Basic Rules, 1981, p. B59.

As an older gamer, I tend to like a lot of aspects of the Old School Renaissance. As I began having children, discovered that spending a lot of time balancing encounters, making sure I gave out just the right amount of treasure, calculated stats properly, etc. was not how I wanted to spend my time. Indeed, I often didn't have the time. It really made me appreciate many of the tropes from the beginning of the RPG hobby. That's not to say I don't enjoy new-fangled stuff. I'm enjoying running a Fate Accelerated Star Wars game, I played an Urban Shadows one-shot last year that was great fun, and I'll likely be playing in a No Country For Old Kobolds adventure in the near future.

In this post, I'll be discussing some of the things about old school gaming that I didn't like - back when it wasn't old school but the current thing. Some of these things actually have been improved in newer incarnations of D&D - and are absolutely available for porting back. Not all of this is exclusive to D&D and related games mind you, though much of it is.

Probably the greatest sin in old school gaming products was in organization. In those old gaming books it was sometimes a nightmare to find a rule. To this day I'm a bit unclear on what a "freely improvable skill" in Aftermath! really means. Similarly it was years until I finally understood what the speed factor of a weapon was. This is something that retroclones often address - for example Swords & Wizardry and Lamentations of the Flame Princess are far better organized than older versions of D&D - though as a result it is easy to miss porting certain rules found in the original game.

Another peeve was starting characters that were ineffective. For example, the D&D thief has starting skills so low so as to be a likely death sentence - consider the fate of poor Black Dougal in the magenta D&D Basic Rules. He fails at his attempt to find a trap (10% at first level) and therefore suffers death. Similarly, magic-users wandered around with their one spell and otherwise uselessness. These are all things I've house-ruled - and aren't particularly difficult to house-rule. For example, one can make it reasonably easy for magic-users to produce spell scrolls and one can give some relief to the thief's all-or-nothing nature.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was the possibility of a character getting too competent. For example, upon reaching around 10th level, a cleric can destroy pretty much any undead he or she meet without making a single roll. Similarly, such a character's saving throws and attack rolls often get extremely good. Again, there are often reasonable solutions to these problems. For example, intelligent undead can always be granted a saving throw or a cleric can be denied the ability to automatically destroy undead, perhaps turning into a damaging smite. Lamentations of the Flame Princess made turning occupy a spell slot. Attack roll inflation is often reduced in modern clones, with their emphasis on "high level" being around 10th level.

None of this should be taken as an indictment on old school gaming. As I've discussed, often issues can be easily house-ruled - and house-ruling in older games is far easier than doing so in newer ones.

PS - The true tragedy of Black Dougal is they never actually make certain he's dead - no time to mourn, grab his pack and give him last rites. Poor guy!


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